The technology used by major automotive companies like Ford and GM to ensure driver safety has come a long way. However, it has yet to be able to prevent or mitigate the damages caused by drunk driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
In a new 99-page “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking” released on Tuesday, the agency is seeking input on mandated in-car technology that can detect alcohol impairment and potentially prevent it altogether.
NHTSA evaluated 331 driver monitoring systems and found that none of them are commercially available and capable of accurately identifying alcohol impairment. While there are three systems in the research and development phase that claim to detect alcohol impairment, NHTSA did not disclose their names.
However, driver monitoring is not the only solution at NHTSA’s disposal. President Biden tasked the agency with finding a solution in the bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021. This law challenges NHTSA to develop a federal motor vehicle safety standard that can passively observe a driver’s impairment or accurately detect their blood alcohol concentration, or a combination of both.
Precision is crucial, and NHTSA states that blood alcohol detection technology presents a more feasible near-term solution. Many states already require breathalyzer-based alcohol ignition interlocks for repeat or high-blood alcohol content offenders. However, because this technology is considered “active,” meaning the driver must proactively engage with it, it contradicts the passive requirement of the law.
Fortunately, there may be another option.
NHTSA has been collaborating with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) since 2008 on a public-private partnership known as Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). As part of this program, DADSS has developed both breath and touch-based methods of detecting driver impairment. While the breath-based method is also considered active and not viable, NHTSA explains that the touch sensor, designed to be embedded in a part of the car that the driver must touch to operate, could be considered passive.
CEO of ACTS, Robert Strassburger, believes that the touch sensor may be the best solution in the near term, given the restriction that the technology must be passive. He is eager to see how the public responds.
“When I read the submitted comments, one thing that will interest me is how people feel about it. It ultimately comes down to consumer acceptance,” he remarks. “We want to make sure that we do not require drivers to adopt a new way of interacting with their vehicle.”
Timing is critical as well. Drunk driving not only claims thousands of lives and costs the country billions of dollars every year but also the regulation must be standardized by November 2024.
However, achieving this target may be challenging given the numerous questions raised by NHTSA in the notice. The agency presents many complex issues, such as requesting more input on driver monitoring and defining “passive.” For example, if a touch sensor is installed in the start-stop button, how can you ensure that the driver is the one who pushes it? If the system determines that the driver is too intoxicated to start the car, should it prevent the car from starting? What if the driver is attempting to flee from a wildfire?
“This is an extremely intricate regulation,” Strassburger comments. “There is a great deal of detail, and it’s crucial for the agency to get it right.”